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Career Stories: Lydia Marks, BFA ’92

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Lydia Marks is an Emmy Award-winning set decorator whose work has been featured in films including Broken Flowers, Sex and the City, and The Devil Wears Prada, and in television series like Maniac and Fosse/Verdon. She also runs her own interior design company, Lydia Marks Design. We recently caught up with Lydia, and she shared the latest on her art practice, inspiration, and recent work. Read about Lydia’s time at SMFA and how that led to her career as a set decorator, in her own words.

Finding Her Jumping Off Point

My 20 years of experience with decoration and design began with a passion for documentary photography. Critiques in art school made me aware of the power of interiors to tell a story. As a student at SMFA, I did a project documenting fraternities. It got such a big reaction—people would look at the subject and look where they were and bring these preconceived notions about who that person was. I realized that the background or setting for your subject tells a story about the psychology, the character, the history of that subject. That was the jumping off point for me—I realized how powerful and telling the background can be, and realized that I could create that background, that world.

What I do is I find all the goods that fill a set—the furniture, the artwork, the flooring, the wall coverings, the curtains, the fabrics, the textures, the accessories. The nuts and bolts of my job is acquiring those things but reflecting the interior life of the characters is where the nuance comes in, and where I get the real joy from what I do. I try to figure out what a character’s world says about them. Sometimes you’ll only see a background for 15 seconds, and it has to be readable in that quick flash. I try to show a character's past. Give them a history. None of this is scripted. It's usually just me coming up with who this person was before this moment in time.

Developing the Work You Want to Make

I went to high school in Brooklyn and I found photography when I was really young. I grew up going to museums. My mother is an artist, and my parents love art. I grew up going to MoMA with them and spending afternoons in the sculpture garden just hanging out. We really liked the idea of SMFA because it could provide that level of academic challenge at the same time as a challenge for my artmaking. That meant a lot to us.

SMFA almost functioned like a graduate school. You were given complete freedom to make your art. So, what I loved, and what tripped me up at first, was the freedom, but I figured it out quickly. I remember being in a ceramics class my first semester, and my teacher said, ‘Why do you keep mushing everything up. Why don't you fire anything?’ I said I didn't really like what I was making. She asked me what I wanted to be making, and I said ‘I don't know. I don't really do ceramics, I’m a photographer.’ And she was like ‘Oh! You don't get it. Listen. If you want to make photography and put it onto your ceramics and do some mixed media, then do it. You need to be doing what you want to do here.’ That’s when I understood how things worked. Every other friend I had who went to art school had their core curriculum, and they had to do this, and they had to do that. And it was that way every year and then you got your degree. I never had that experience—it only took a couple weeks at SMFA for me to understand that you need to be developing the work that you want to make. And you can use any medium you want to tell your story. This is how you really develop yourself as an artist. It’s important to be a self-starter. You need to find what you're trying to say, and whatever that takes, and however long that takes, it’s worth it.

On Her Favorite Project

One of my favorite projects was working on Broken Flowers with Jim Jarmusch. That was my first opportunity to work with him. I idolized him when I was younger. I think he was part of the reason I went to SMFA. I wanted to make photography and film and be a part of that culture that he was a part of. It inspired me to be in this industry. The movie is a road trip. It's about a person rediscovering and revisiting his past. Each character that he visits is so different. It was so fun for me because I got to create so many different worlds. The viewer only sees them briefly, but each had to be totally distinct. And because Jim is such a brave and thoughtful filmmaker, we were able to take those characters places that some directors may not have been bold enough to go. He embraces that and encourages it. The best part of working with Jim is when he walks on the set. He's thrilled to see the work you've put in and how you've developed his story. It’s nice to collaborate with somebody like that.

Image courtesy of Lydia Marks.